Neurocriticism and Neurocapitalism

by Rob Horning

22 April 2010

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Perhaps Next, a Pill...

Image (partial) found on (artist unknown)

Image (partial) found on (artist unknown)

We can only hope that pharmaceutical companies are involved with this research, as well. Perhaps they could devise a pill to make us understand “complex” reading matter properly.

Brain scans seem the expression of a pervasive fantasy to make thought processes transparent and processable as data—to make them texts, but without all that slippery semiology that made the interpretation of texts so notoriously unreliable and problematic to an earlier generation of literary critics. Brain scans are beyond interpretation; scientists can simply translate the glowing areas into their appropriate meanings, and eventually they will be able to devise the appropriate prescriptions for what to stimulate and what to suppress to light up the socially desirable lobes. Maybe we can help people live better lives that way, just as in the past, psychologists had come to the scientific conclusion that lobotomizing people would help them get along. Perhaps more sophisticated brain scanning can better guide the way.

We can only hope that pharmaceutical companies are involved with this research, as well. Perhaps they could devise a pill to make us understand “complex” reading matter properly. After all, we already agree about what constitutes complexity, right? If we don’t we only need to average enough brain scans together to come up with an incontestable definition. We can also figure out the “right way” that complex reading material should be processed—the brain scan will show us what is normal—what has been sanctioned by evolutionary processes—and to which everyone else should then be corrected. 

Programming aesthetic responsiveness through brain scans and ersatz mind reading seem disturbing enough, but neurologically based criticism may be regarded as a symptom of a broader and more sinister phenomenon, what German critics Ewa Hess and Hennric Jokeit call “neurocapitalism” (“Neurocapitalism,” Merkur, June 2009). They argue that as cognitive processes are tamed by science, the brain becomes a new frontier for capital investment, generating lucrative opportunities as economic pressures require us to reshape our mental capacities.

Capitalism, they write, “has shown itself to be not only exceptionally adaptable and crisis-resistant, but also, in every phase of its dominance, capable of producing the scientific and technological wherewithal to analyze and mitigate the self-generated ‘malfunctioning’ to which its constituent subjects are prone. In doing so—and this too is one of capitalism’s algorithms—it involves them in the inexorably effective cycle of supply and demand.”

Neuroscience is currently at the cutting-edge of this process. In earlier stages of capitalism, Hess and Jokeit argue, Freudian theory emerged to cope with the neurosis derived from industrialization, and after World War II, psychopharmacological therapies came to the fore to deal with pervasive consumerism and the psychological problem that is its obverse—depression, the failure to adequately realize the hyperindividualist self. Now, our networked society prompts us to juggle multiple identities, assume a pseudoubiquity and make ourselves perpetually accessible, thus yielding its own characteristic mental illnesses that revolve around prolonging the attention span.

Just as the repression of past centuries gave rise to the silent drama of neurotic symptoms, and the apparently boundless excess of the second half of the twentieth century created a breeding ground for the desireless state of depression, so the elevation of pre-selective attention skills and emotional intelligence to decisive competitive advantages could, in the event of failure, be very harmful to precisely these.

The pharmaceutical industry is laboring to meet the new demand. The market for neuroenhancers to cope with our perceived attention deficit, Hess and Jokeit write, “is likely to expand into those areas in which a performance-driven society confronts the post-postmodern self with its own shortcomings: in other words in schools and further education, at work, in relationships, and in old age. Among the best-selling neuro-psychotropic drugs are those that modulate the way people experience emotions and those that improve their capacity to pay attention and to concentrate, in most cases regardless of whether there is a clinically definable impairment of these functions.”

The new brain-scanning technologies have been recruited to hone the capabilities of these enhancers. “Since the late 1990s, medical journals have published more and more articles describing the neuronal correlations of love, hate, envy, Schadenfreude, mourning, altruism and lying,” Hess and Jokeit note. The literary neurocritics’ efforts could easily be added to the list.

The effect of these studies is to reduce emotional states to quantifiable proportions of brain chemicals that can then be artificially manipulated. Just as neurocritics efface the particular literary reading experience in favor of a general, universalized understanding of the reading process, neurocapitalism seeks to generalize the entire range of human affect: “By viewing emotions in general terms rather than as singular events taking place in a unique temporal and spatial context, the neurosciences have created a rational justification for trying to influence them in ways other than by individual and mutual care.”

Essentially, that means using neuroscience to devise even better commercial products to provoke the emotions that we once derived from human relationships while better perfecting our isolation. Who wants the hassle of other people, who are not nearly as reliable as goods in delivering emotional comfort on demand? With so many awesome things to consume, why wouldn’t we want to enhance our attention spans, prolong our alertness, minimize our direct human contact in favor of mediated, controllable contact over the internet? Isn’t our online presence just a sort of socialized brain scan, as we derive feedback data about what sort of sites we like to visit and what sort of teasers prompt us to click through as we manage our friend networks to yield the maximum pleasure from them?

Of course, once we are sufficiently isolated, and our social skills and instincts for solidarity have atrophied even further, we’ll be completely dependent on our scientific salves. At last, a true triumph for the humanities. 

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